On June 16, 2020 The Daily Vox celebrates six years in existence. The origin story is incredible and Shaazia Ebrahim and Fatima Moosa chatted to co-founder Khadija Patel to hear it first hand. Here is the conversation reproduced in full.
My name is Khadija Patel and I am the co-founder of the Daily Vox.
Azad Essa (co-founder of The Daily Vox) and I were friends for a long time. Without ever seriously meaning it, we’d often talk about someday owning our own news organisation. It was just idle talk among friends where he would come live in Joburg and we would do this thing. It was something that I thought I would do someday, but never seriously thought that this is something we could do.
In what was the latter part of 2013, I was working for the Daily Maverick and I was pretty happy in my job. I was just feeling disillusioned about journalism and why I was doing it. I wanted to do something else. So I applied for a writing fellowship with Wiser and Duke University. I saw it on Twitter and I thought I would give it a crack. If it happens, it happens. I didn’t seriously think that I would get it and then I’ve got it!
So I had planned to resign from my job and was quite excited about writing a book that I’d been meaning to. I had planned to resign around January 2014. But in December 2013, I was on leave and Madiba passed away. So I had this crazy habit at the Daily Maverick, every time I took leave something cataclysmic happened. For instance, I was on leave when the Marikana Massacre happened. And now, I was on leave and Madiba passed away.
So it was December 2013 and Madiba passed away. Azad was working for Al Jazeera in Doha and he was sent to South Africa to cover Mandela’s funeral. Every hotel, guest house, and anything that remotely serves as a place of accommodation for travellers in Johannesburg at that time was booked out. So Azad stayed with me at my family home. He received quite a generous amount to cover accommodation costs. Obviously I wasn’t charging him – or at least my parents weren’t charging him to stay with us.
During the trip we started kicking around the idea of doing something for the election. This was the general election coming up in 2014. It would be the first election that the so-called born free generation would be voting in. So we thought it’s exciting and we should do something about it. I remember sitting in Service Station in Melville where we met with Ebrahim Fakir. We were just asking people for their advice. At that time, Fakir was working for the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa.
He was particularly sussed on elections. Ebrahim is a very direct person so he was very frank about what was nonsense and wasn’t and gave us some ideas. So we took notes and so this project began. The amount that Azad saved from accommodation became the founding capital for the organisation. It was about R20 000. And that’s how we started what would then become The Daily Vox.
We obviously needed journalists. I remembered that in October of that year I received this email from this journalist in Cape Town. It was a young aspiring journalist who said that she’d just finished her studies and she’s on the hunt for job opportunities. Someone recommended that she contact me for a heads up. I remember receiving that email and thinking if you thought I knew where the jobs were, I would be going for the job.
But I didn’t have the heart to reply to this email. So I just left it in my inbox. When we were looking for journalists, I remembered this email. I noticed that she had a link to her blog in her email. I was particularly impressed because she’d gone out during that time after Madiba had passed on and done vox pops with people. That was perfect. It was exactly what we wanted – someone to go out and actually speak to people and listen to what they’re saying. That’s how we hired Ra’eesa Pather.
A little later, we hired Pontsho Pilane. I’d remembered Pontsho from a speaking engagement that I’d done at Wits. I had met both Aaisha Dadi Patel and Pontsho at the same media studies lecture I had given. Ra’eesa was our first hire and I think we actually hired Pontsho only a few weeks before the actual election.
We originally hired Aaisha and Shaeera Kalla. We hired them and then Israeli Apartheid Week happened and they both said they wouldn’t be able to work. So obviously, Shaeera never came back. The rest of that is history. Aaisha became a core member of the team. Azad knew Rumana Akoob through his cousins in Durban. I can’t remember now who else was part of that initial team. It feels like so long ago even if it wasn’t. There were some people who only worked with us for a couple of weeks or a month.
But that’s how this project began. It was an elections project. It was called SAVotes2014.com.
That’s what it was. It was fun and exciting.
The election happened in May. We did a crowdfunding campaign in between. We also got a grant from the Open Society Foundation. But for me, there was a deadline after the election. I had won the fellowship and I had to go and actually write this book. They were expecting to start seeing me at Wits and start making plans to go to the US.
I remember being at the results center in Pretoria for the elections. A number of people kept coming up to me saying you can’t let this die. “Keep doing it.” I remember feeling really intimidated and a little overwhelmed because I wasn’t sure how we’re going to do this. Azad was in Doha. He’s got a full time job at Al-Jazeera. We were actually at Motherland in Rosebank and I remember Faranaaz had a very young baby and she walked past us twice. I had great respect for Faranaaz as a journalist. She would be amazing so we offered her the job of managing editor. We also signed the syndication agreement with the Sowetan. We had a plan. So I went off to write the book that is still not written.
And The Daily Vox was born on June 16, 2014. It’s foundation was SAVotes2014 but that’s how it came to be.
So The Daily Vox turns six years old. For me, I can’t believe that it’s six years old. It’s amazing. It somehow still exists and still does important work. But it’s been tough. It’s been grueling.
In 2016, we’d done a couple of very successful crowdfunding campaigns and we were pledged money by donors. When I called up the donor and they were like what do you mean we’d given you everything we’re meant to give. I was in a deep panic.
But before that, the thing we forget is that Fees Must Fall happened. The Daily Vox was catapulted into this new reign of media coverage and won an international award for its work. I was very proud of it. It was amazing. This institution suddenly became so important.
At various times with The Daily Vox, I did feel overwhelmed and not knowing what we would do.
Out of the blue, I get a phone call from the CEO of the Mail Guardian. Long story short, he offers me the job of editor-in-chief at the Mail and Guardian. I didn’t want it. I never sought out that kind of trajectory for myself. I still see myself as a journalist. I just want to write stories about the world. So it was very surprising. I told him I can’t take the job and he was shocked. He couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be the editor of the Mail and Guardian. I explained to him that I have The Daily Vox and I can’t take your job.
He told me he has a plan. And when he laid out his plan in a partnership between the Mail and Guardian and The Daily Vox, at that moment, I knew I had to take this job. It began a period of another kind of difficulty for The Daily Vox because I had to take a step back. It was very difficult for me because this was part of me. The Daily Vox was literally operating out of my parents’ garden. I would have been having diary meetings in my pajamas. It was a fundamental part of who I was.
It was difficult. I think The Daily Vox suffered because I could not contribute. Looking back now, after having left the M&G, some things are clearer. The Daily Vox was a product of friendship. Yes, it had a bold editorial vision but it was also just a product of conversations between two friends.
I think it’s only now that we’re starting to recover from that. It’s just like the journey of a startup. Every day is precarious.
Would I do it again? A hundred times over, I would.
Would I do some things differently? Absolutely yes.
I think that we have to be bold. We have to be fearless. And we have to be comfortable being uncomfortable – pushing ourselves outside of our own comfort zones and actually going out there listening to people and telling their stories. What I wanted is for The Daily Vox to just be bold, be fearless to tell the stories of South Africa. To find new ways of telling stories that appeal to young people. For me, it doesn’t matter whether 1000 people are reading or listening or 10 000 or 100 000. That’s important for sustainability. But ultimately, if the 1000 people that are reading you are they actually finding something valuable? Is this changing or are we just doing everything that everybody else is doing?
The Daily Vox ought not to be doing what everyone else is doing. You just should feel free to be itself. That’s what I want The Daily Vox to be.